The Fragile Beauty of Harvard’s Glass Flowers

The Fragile Beauty of Harvard’s Glass Flowers – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – February 2004

Text Excerpted from The Glass Flowers at Harvard, by Richard Evans Schultes and William A. Davis.
Photographs by Hillel Burger. Text and photographs used with kind permission of the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Copyright President and Fellows of Harvard College

On April 16, 1890, father and son glass artists Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka signed a ten-year agreement to make plant models exclusively for Harvard University. This relationship with Harvard would ultimately span a half century and culminate in one of the most unique and breathtakingly beautiful collections ever created.

The Glass Flowers collection was commissioned by Harvard Botanical Museum Director George Goodale and financed by Boston residents Elizabeth C. and Mary Lee Ware. The Ware Collection of Glass Models of Plants, as it is officially known, consists of 4,400 models that replicate the tiniest details of plant anatomy with astounding precision. This exhibition showcases the Glass Flowers and explores the science and artistry behind this one-of-a-kind collection.

The History of the Glass Flowers

As the first director of the Botanical Museum at Harvard, Dr. Goodale was concerned with the character of the exhibits that would be included in the museum. He was reluctant to use such available materials as dried or preserved plants and various plant products, wanting instead something that would convey the beauty and vitality of the plant kingdom and through which he could interest a large viewing audience. At that time plant replicas made of wax or papier mache were either crudely done or would not stand up well over a period of time. Furthermore, they did not show accurate detail.

One day Dr. Goodale saw glass replicas of marine invertebrates in Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology (where some can still be seen on exhibit). He was convinced that this medium was the one in which a permanent botanical collection could be produced. This belief led to Dr. Goodale’s journey to Dresden. He was given a friendly welcome by the Blaschkas who listened to him politely. In the course of their conversation Dr. Goodale noticed in the room several glass orchids, which had been made by the father some years earlier. This strengthened his resolve to get them to agree to make a few glass plants for Harvard.

Although the first few models sent by the Blaschkas were badly damaged while passing through customs in New York, their excellence was such that all who saw the pieces were convinced of the appropriateness of this medium. Several Boston residents, notably Elizabeth C. Ware and her daughter, Mary Lee Ware, were struck by the beauty and excellence of the artistry and workmanship. They urged Dr. Goodale to secure a contract with the Blaschkas, offering to finance the project. The Blaschkas agreed to produce plant models for Harvard on a half-time basis, devoting the other half of their time to continuing the production of marine invertebrates.

In the first stages of what eventually became a very extensive project, it was necessary to give thoughtful consideration to what plants should be replicated in glass, as the expected duration of the project was limited. It was thought desirable to represent as many orders, genera, and species as possible. Toward this end particular plants were chosen, and the list was sent to the Blaschkas, who used it to plan the sequence of their productions.

Some of the plants on the list were sent from America to Germany to be cultivated by the Blaschkas in their own garden and used as basic references in their work. Many of the exotic plants ? particularly the tropical species ? were in the royal gardens and greenhouses of the castle in nearby Pillnitz, and were made available to them for viewing.

In April 1887 the first shipment of 20 models arrived in New York. To avoid the earlier unhappy accident, prior arrangements had been made with the customs office to take the shipment directly to Cambridge, where it would be opened carefully by museum personnel in the presence of a customs official.

As their work progressed, it became necessary for the Blaschkas to examine certain tropical plants under more natural conditions. So in 1892 the younger Blaschka traveled to the Caribbean and also visited various areas of the United States, where he studied the plants of these regions, made drawings and color notes, and collected and preserved specimens to take back to the workshop in Germany for future reference. Rudolf’s second field trip to America in 1895 was curtailed by the death of his father. He returned to Germany to continue this monumental project alone, a project that his father had characterized as “a first class Unicom.” In 1936, because of old age, Rudolf Blaschka retired from his glass working activities.

Transporting the Glass Flowers

When visitors to the museum see the delicacy of the glass flowers, they often ask how the models could possibly have been safely transported to their present location, especially from as far away as Germany.

On November 7, 1894, in a lecture delivered to the Boston Society of Natural History, Dr. Goodale expressed his belief that the packing of the flowers was “almost as wonderful as anything about them.” The Blaschkas had had years of practice in the packing of delicate objects through their previous experience in shipping glass models of marine invertebrates, and they applied the same highly successful methods to the packing of the glass flowers for shipment.

The finished model would be mounted on firm cardboard, with strong wire securing it. The mounted specimen was then placed in a sturdy cardboard box. Tissue paper was used to cushion it and keep the parts that could not readily be wired from moving. Two samples of this preparation-for-shipping technique are still on exhibit in the museum.

Next, the cardboard box would be covered; and, when a number of such boxes were ready, they were all placed in a very large, sturdy wooden box with a sufficient amount of straw padding to keep the individual boxes from touching one another or the walls of the wooden box. The wooden cover was then screwed on, and the box was embedded in more straw padding before being wrapped in burlap. The finished bale, which was nearly the height of a person, was then sent to a seaport, loaded onto a ship, and transported to America. Here, the packing procedure was reversed, much care being taken in the final process of removing the models from their cardboard boxes.

Stories about the secret process involved in making the glass flowers have been circulating for as long as the models have been around. As early as 1889, in a letter to Miss Ware, Professor Goodale recounted various remarks made to him by the elder Blaschka as he watched the artists create the bouquet that was later presented to the Wares. Among other things, Leopold said: Many people think that we have some secret apparatus by which we can squeeze glass suddenly into these forms, but it is not so. We have tact. My son Rudolf has more than I have, because he is my son, and tact increases in every generation. The only way to become a glass modeler of skill, I have often said to people, is to get a good great-grandfather who loved glass; then he is to have a son with like tastes; he is to be your grandfather. He in turn will have a son who must, as your father, be passionately fond of glass. You, as his son, can then try your hand, and it is your own fault if you do not succeed. But, if you do not have such ancestors, it is not your fault. My grandfather was the most widely known glassworker in Bohemia, and he lived to be eighty-three years of age. My father was about as old, and Rudolf hopes my hand will be steady for many years yet. I am now between sixty and seventy and very young; am I not, Rudolf? In the same letter to Miss Ware, he related a bit more about the modeling procedures. “The worktables,” Goodale wrote, are covered with rods and tubes of glass, and blocks of colored glass, and spools of wire of different sorts. The bellows under the table are of the ordinary sort used by glassworkers and the blast-tube is a very simple one of glass. The lamp is made of a tin cup containing a wick, and solid paraffin which melts at a pretty low temperature is used as the fuel. In making the Phlox which they asked me to bring to you and your mother, they drew first of all a rough sketch of the relations of all the flowers to each other and to the leaves, and then began to mix some glass with colors to get the right tints. The corolla is drawn and formed from a tube of glass. Then the petals are formed and melted to the tube of the corolla. The stamens are melted in next, and then the whole thing is placed in an annealing oven to remain for a few hours. It took Mr. B. just an hour and a half to make the tubes and petals of the three flowers. It required about an hour to put in the stamens and add the calyx. Next, the buds with their twists are made and all are fastened to wires covered with glass. All of these are next fastened to a stem with leaves and the product is then ready for a little paint which is added with great skill where it is required. The molding of the shapes is effected by means of ordinary pincers and tweezers. With these clumsy tools they fashion the flat plates and turn them in any way they please. With little needles fastened in handles, they make the grooves and lines and figurings of the edges. But although you may see him touch a flat piece of glass with his little metallic tools, you know that it is no ordinary touch which suddenly shapes it into a living form.

The truth, then, is that no secret process ever went into the manufacture of th models. All the techniques employed were known to glassworkers of the period. The only difference was the combination in one individual of the meticulous skill unmatched patience, accurate observation, and deep love of the subject that the two Blaschkas brought to all of their work. These models have been described as “an artistic marvel in the field of science and a scientific marvel in the field of art ? certainly a more apt observation would be difficult to imagine.

The Ware Collection contains approximately 847 life-size models representing some 780 species and varieties of plants in 164 families, with over 3,000 detailed models of enlarged flowers and anatomical sections of various floral and vegetative parts of the plants. There are also three special exhibits: a large and selected group of the lower plants or cryptogams, illustrating the complex life histories of fungi, bryophytes, and ferns; a group of some 64 models, showing fungal diseases of fruit of the Rosaceae (apple, pear, and so forth); and, perhaps most striking of all, several exhibits of plants and insects fashioned in glass representing the different processes of pollinization. The whole collection follows the nomenclature adopted at the Gray Herbarium of Harvard University and is arranged in accord with the Engler-Gilg phylogenetic system of plant classification. The plants are exhibited by family in order of evolution, from the simplest to the most advanced or complex.

Making the Glass Models

Although the models are made almost entirely of glass, certain other materials figured in their creation. Even though we have no direct evidence in the way records of procedures that the Blaschkas might have made during their long career as modelers of glass, we know from correspondence among the principals involved that the predominant constituent of the models was indeed glass. In some of the plant models, wire, in a variety of weights and compositions, was used to strengthen them; without the wire, models with hanging fruits or other heavy structures would have been likely to break. We know also that the glass used to make the models varied in composition and therefore was subject to variation in its working qualities. Often, to assemble successfully the many parts of a structure (or several or more structures), it was necessary that glass of varying degrees of fusibility be applied in the proper sequence. Familiarity with the wide-ranging characteristics of glass was basic to the Blaschkas’ success in handling this material. Such knowledge was practically inbred in the Blaschkas from the generations of experience to which they had fallen heir.

We know also from existing letters that, in some cases, clear glass was used to create a desired shape; in other cases, colored glass was employed. When colored glass was desired, it was formed into the needed shape and, once formed, was considered finished; nothing was added to it. A reference to this aspect of the work can be found in a letter to Dr. Goodale from Rudolf Blaschka dated October 27, 1906, in which he wrote, “The Coniferae are all of self-prepared glass, nothing or almost nothing painted.”

When clear glass was used, it was also formed into the desired shape. To complete the work, however, color had to be applied to the surface to simulate the appearance of the original plant. Rudolf mentioned this aspect of his work in a letter to Professor Goodale on August 7, 1900:

This is the provable fact that every model in your museum was painted by myself. I owe the knowledge of painting art to my father whose eminent gift is proved in the souvenirs I yet possess, the pictures he painted 25-30 years ago. But I got so established and versed in working very rapidly with the brush that, since more than twenty years, all and every painting of models, of the invertebrate animals as well as later of all plants came exclusively on my part.

Thus, all the plant models and marine invertebrates that the father and son produced together before 1895, the year of the father’s death, were painted. Undoubtedly, many of the models that Rudolf subsequently produced by himself between 1895 and 1900 were also finished by this method, which he refers to in some of his letters as “cold painting.”

A few samples of the material used to simulate the surface colors of some of the earlier models have been subjected to preliminary analysis: they seem to consist of gum or glue, or a combination of both, plus mineral pigments. This material seems to respond to variations in humidity. When the humidity is high, it remains unaffected; but when the humidity falls, it becomes distorted and pulls away from the glass surface; and in some cases, it pulls fragments of glass from the underlying surface. It is possible that this movement of the coating material may be due partly to age; we simply do not know. It remains one of the mysteries yet to be solved.

The surface of some of the plant models seems unchanged. Occasionally however, the shiny glass can be seen under an area of the applied material that has suffered from low humidity. More frequently, especially in many of the enlarged cross sections, the coating material has pulled away from the surface. As models regularly subjected to fluctuations in humidity, the separation of this material will continue and, in time, the material will become completely detached from the underlying glass. In some of the cross sections of the ovaries, for example, material has already become completely detached. It would therefore seem reasonable to state that on the third floor of the Botanical Museum there are more endangered species per square foot than anywhere else in the world!

Although this condition is not reversible, it can be stabilized. To halt disintegration, the whole collection should be housed in an environment that provides constant temperature and humidity control. In the mid- 1970s an attempt made to raise funds to air-condition the halls where the collection is housed, but fund raising for this worthy and urgent improvement has not yet been successful.

Because the glass flowers were made for Harvard, the whole collection is housed at the University. On a number of occasions, however, a few of the plant models have been exhibited elsewhere. Some were shown in Paris in 1900, but our information on this event is very sketchy. A few were put on temporary exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and six models went to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904.

In 1959 Professor Paul C. Mangelsdorf, third Director of the Botanical Museum, sent six glass flowers on loan to the Corning Glass Museum in Corning, New York. Much of this museum and all six of the glass flowers were ruined in a disastrous flood in 1972. One additional model has since been lent to the new Corning Museum and is now on exhibit there.

More recently, in 1974, the fourth director of the Botanical Museum, Professor Richard Evans Schultes, sent three models to Tokyo as part of a temporary exhibit of Harvardiana that was held at the Isetan Department Store. The three models chosen were Camellia sinensis, Panicum boreale, and Mahonia aquifolium. As transportation has changed radically since the days of steamship travel, they were taken by plane to Japan by their present curator, William A. Davis. “Mr. Box” (the name given to the case in which the models were packed) had a seat in the first-class section ? complete with seat belt and additional web belting for security ? and made the whole trip by Mr. Davis’s side. The three models were packed for the journey very much as they had been when first sent from Dresden to Cambridge; but instead of straw padding styrofoam was chosen as the shock-absorbing material.

Two years later 25 models were destined to make a much more difficult, albeit much shorter, trip. In early 1976 the Steuben Glass Company arranged for a special month-long exhibit of these glass flowers in their showrooms on Fifth Avenue in New York. Again it was left to Mr. Davis to supervise the packing and accompany the models.

The models, packed in wooden cases similar to those used for the trip to Japan, were to be flown from Boston to New York in a small plane. But the question of how they could be safely transported over the icy, potholed streets to Logan Airport in Boston and from La Guardia to Manhattan remained. What type of automobile had the best springs to give the smoothest ride? Although the obvious conclusion was the use of a limousine, test runs indicated a hearse was even better. So, one afternoon in March, two large black hearses, each with a driver in funereal dress, backed up to the doors of the museum, and the boxes were loaded. The automobiles proved to be such a perfect answer that, after a well-attended month-long showing, the models were not returned by air but were driven the 200 miles back to Cambridge in two hearses.

The Ware Collection of Glass Models of Plants is housed in two rooms on the third floor of the Botanical Museum of Harvard University. The first models are now nearly a century old. When the Blaschkas began their work for Harvard, no one expected that it would go on for half a century and that such a vast collection of plants would be the result.

The glass flowers are used primarily as teaching tools in the plant sciences. Harvard University does not maintain extensive greenhouses for this purpose. If it did have such facilities, their value in teaching botany would be rather limited, because real plants flower for only a short period of time and only in their particular season. The glass flowers, on the other hand, in addition to being stunningly accurate to the smallest detail, are in flower all year round and consequently make superb teaching tools.

Over the years this collection has become a mecca for tourists, plant lovers, garden clubs, and many others. In fact, the glass flowers constitute the largest single public attraction at Harvard University, drawing over 100,000 visitors a year.

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